Civil liberties groups question anonymous reporting tool

Officials said about half of reports are anonymous.

A “see something, say something” approach to reporting on-campus hazing, bullying, cheating, or suspicious behavior at Virginia colleges has some civil libertarians questioning a technology that higher-education officials insist is necessary to comply with a state law.

Twenty-five colleges throughout Virginia use a web-based incident reporting program made by a Nebraska-based company called Awareity, which markets its Threat Assessment, Incident Management, and Prevention Services (TIPS) system as a way for campus decision makers to prevent security compromises, sniff out plagiarism, and even discover broken streetlamps, among other uses.

Students who submit an Awareity report, however, don’t have to attach their names or contact information to the online submission form. Officials at schools that use the reporting system said it has not yet been used as a tool for a student with a personal vendetta against a classmate, but higher-education observers said the option for anonymity leaves open the possibility.

If a student accuses another student of running a plagiarism ring, for example, the college should have some way of allowing the accused to question the accuser, face to face, before disciplinary action is taken.

“You can get into a situation where everyone on campus is always in a position to rat out their neighbors and cause some sort of trouble, or to use [the system] to get revenge on someone,” said Robert Shibley, senior vice president at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). “There is inherent risk with having these kinds of anonymous reporting systems. … And if the university finds this happening, that the system is being abused in some way, they need to really reevaluate the system.”

Rick Shaw, the CEO and founder of Awareity, which also serves K-12 school districts, said colleges haven’t hedged on the anonymity reporting option. If a college student wants to wreak havoc in a classmate’s life, he said, they’re going to use more traditional means.

“What adults don’t quite understand [about] kids these days is that if they’re going to get at somebody, they’re going to do it on Facebook or they’re going to do it on Twitter,” Shaw said. “If they want to do damage in the digital realm, that’s where they are going to go.”

Virginia colleges have adopted the Awareity incident reporting system to comply with a part of the state’s Code Section that requires “each public college or university have in place policies and procedures for the prevention of violence on campus,” a rule stemming from the April 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.

Those shootings, officials said, changed the way Virginia colleges approached threat assessment teams, which, even if assembled with great care, need information to act upon. That’s where online reporting tools come in.

“This is a way to identify red flags and halt them before they become a real issue for us,” said Garth McDonald, program manager for safety and emergency preparedness at Thomas Nelson Community College (TNCC) in Hampton, Va., a school of 10,000 students that has used Awareity since February.

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